This bill, Missouri House Bill 2051, would prohibit teachers in public schools from discussing homosexuality with their students.
The impetus for the bill comes from a widespread belief in Fundamentalist America that public schools push what Fundamentalists call a “homosexual agenda.”
Understandably, non-fundamentalists see bills like this as an attempt to limit rights for gay people. One Missouri activist called this bill “a desperate tactic by frightened, bigoted, cynical individuals who are terrified at the advancement the LGBT community has made.” Other interweb voices blasted the move as “moronic legislation” by the “elected bullies” in the Missouri legislature.
I agree with the sentiment expressed by these anti-2051 activists. This Missouri bill, like other bills that seek to control teachers’ ideological performance, promotes a poisonous educational atmosphere in which the best teachers are forced into cynicism or subversion. Meanwhile, the bulk of public school teachers trudge along in a bland mediocrity, avoiding any topic that might have potential interest or relevance in students’ real lives.
But I wonder if opponents of the Missouri bill understand that the polemic strategy they use actually reinforces the notions of their Fundamentalist opponents. Here’s what I mean: The most common defense of discussing sexual orientation openly and frankly in public schools is that such discussions can help limit bullying. Defenders of the rights of gay people, especially of gay students in schools, point to the dangerous and even fatal bullying of gay students as the threat of gag rules like HB 2051. To attack HB 2051, gay-rights activists wrap their assertion of rights for homosexuals in the language of a wider, faddish anti-bullying campaign.
In doing so, they confirm the suspicion of anti-gay activists from Fundamentalist America. Such activists warn of a creeping “homosexual agenda.” Such an agenda, Fundamentalists warn, focuses on using public schools to promote an idea that all sexual orientations must be considered equal. A central trait of this “homosexual agenda” in public schools, as this CitizenLink (an offshoot of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family) video emphasizes, is that the homosexual agenda is “sneaky.” [This video is just under ten minutes long, but well worth the time for those who hope to understand the thinking of Fundamentalist America.]
Fundamentalists warn that homosexual activists will wrap their true agenda in other causes. And, when gay-rights activists point to bullying as the main reason to oppose 2051, they add more legitimacy to this Fundamentalist claim.
Let me be clear here: I am not in support of 2051. But arguing that this is a bullying issue, instead of a gay-rights issue, is exactly what Fundamentalist America expects of gay-rights activists. I suspect a better understanding of Fundamentalist America would allow gay-rights activists to avoid playing into Fundamentalists’ hands in this way. Using the broader issue of bullying to promote fuller equality in public schools ends up strengthening Fundamentalist arguments, not weakening them. Equality should be enough. That is, gay-rights activists and others should keep it simple: Public schools must be places where every student, teacher, parent, staff member, and administrator feels welcomed and valued. Regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other distinction. This is sufficient reason to oppose Missouri’s 2051 and similar bills. Saying that gay students must have equal rights only because they might otherwise be bullied muddies the issue. It fuels Fundamentalist fears that a “homosexual agenda” is being foisted on public schools, hidden in common anti-bullying campaigns.